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March 4, 2020

Aristotle, Accad and Golden Means to Christian-Muslim Interaction

By Brent Hamoud

People are intuitively innovative, but religion is a realm where innovation can easily lag. Faith convictions have a history of taking lines in the sand and turning them into crevasses in concrete, especially regarding Christian-Muslim relations. Over the years many ideas have been inspired but not enough substance has transpired. Important interfaith work is indeed being done, but there is need for more and better. I suggest here that contemporary theory for Christian-Muslim relations can benefit from leaning on the classics. By reading the philosophy of Aristotle into the ideas of Martin Accad, we might unlock some innovation.

Aristotle was concerned with being good, and in the Nicomachean Ethics he posits the good as a matter of virtue identified within his ‘rule of the golden mean.’ According to the rule, every virtue exists as a mean on a spectrum between opposing vices. On one side is a vice marked by a deficiency of a virtue’s substance while on other is a vice of excess. In between is a mean, the midpoint where virtue is found. Aristotle essentially contends that being good means striking a note of moderation; to have too much or too little is bad, but to have the right amount is to be virtuous.

For example, Aristotle presents courage as a virtue relating to confidence situated between the vices of cowardice and rashness. A deficiency of confidence leads to cowardice, but the excess of confidence leads to rashness. Neither are good. Courage is achieved when confidence is exhibited in just the right amount. As with every virtue, there is no way to have too much or too little courage; you can only get closer and closer to the golden mean.

Aristotle sees all virtue within this rule of a mean between extremes,[1] and I believe the theoretical construction can effectively inform our approaches to Christian-Muslim relations today.

Accad has developed a framework for categorizing interfaith interaction called the SEKAP Spectrum of Christian-Muslim Interactions, which seemingly evokes Aristotle’s rule of the golden mean in providing a tool to assess Christian religious receptivity[2] of Islam.

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On one end of Accad’s spectrum is the excessive receptivity of syncretic interaction, whichdismisses religious differences by supposing that all religions are essentially the same. On the opposite end is polemical interaction, where “one seeks to destroy and uproot [Islamic] tenets” within a triumphalist, exclusionary view of Christianity.[i] Syncretic and polemical approaches, as Accad presents them, constitute Aristotelian vices in that they pose problematic receptivity to Islam. In being overly receptive, syncretic interaction effectively cheapens Islamic faith by blending it into a general collective of universal belief systems. Meanwhile, polemical interaction deems Islam so utterly meritless that nothing in its long tradition is considered worthy of consideration. Neither approach is constructive to fostering fruitful witness of Christ, but Accad does propose a middle way, a type of Aristotelian golden mean: the kerygmatic approach.

Accad’s median approach is characterized by a kerygma (Greek for proclamation) of “God’s good news concerning repentance, the kingdom, and Jesus.”[ii] It exhibits religious receptivity by seeing Islam as a highly complex religious phenomenon encompassing many threads of belief and tradition. Such a posture towards Islam is both critical and reasonable, and I believe the kerygmatic approach inspires thoughtful ways to engage Muslims in the hopefulness of Jesus Christ.[3]

While dialoguing Aristotle and Accad may help us formulate virtuous approaches to Christian-Muslim interaction, the exercise also reveals ways in which the kerygmatic approach is perceived by others. An intriguing aspect of Aristotle’s rule of the golden mean is the idea that virtues appear relative to their corresponding vices. In other words, a virtue seems different depending on whether one is viewing from a position of excess or of deficiency.  Let us again consider courage as the mean relative to cowardice and rashness. To the one who is rash, a courageous action will appear to be something cowardly. But to the coward, a deed of courage will appear rash. For example, it is courageous to report a corrupt work supervisor to higher authorities. However, this action appears cowardly to rash people who are inclined to confront corrupt supervisors directly and forcefully. Cowards, on the other hand, consider this courageous act rash because of its likelihood to result in negative backlash and repercussions. An act of courage appears quite different depending on the amount of confidence the viewer possesses, and to hit the mark of virtue we often must act in a way that feels excessive or deficient.

In similar fashion, perception of the kerygmatic approach to interfaith interaction is relative to one’s positioning on the SEKAP spectrum. Polemicists tend to view the kerygmatic as being syncretic due to its receptivity to Islamic teachings about Muhammad and the Quran. Meanwhile the syncretic will look at the kerygmatic as disturbingly polemical in its refusal to minimize truth claims of Jesus Christ and its insistence to scrutinize Islam’s narrative and historical expression. The kerygmatic approach can be misread by those on either end of the spectrum, which is something Aristotle accounts for in his understanding of virtue.

Though this mental exercise may have theoretical value, it is of little use to us if it does not hold up to the example of Jesus Christ. While Aristotle has his theories of virtue, Jesus Christ in his incarnation is the very embodiment of virtue. Everything about him is a living statement about the good; to know him is to know the way of God! Any attempt to contain Christ to a theoretical spectrum is foolhardy, but we do see in scripture a portrayal of Jesus as a golden figure who constantly unsettled those of the extremes. The moralistic, hard-headed religionists of the day were utterly dismayed by the scandalous ways Jesus rebuffed convention to extend mercy and kindness to “undesirables.” His social life and personal associations led to accusations of being a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Conversely, Jesus’ “hard teachings” were met with irritation and displeasure by those opposing his elevated reading of law and obedience (John 6:53-66, Mark 10:17-22, Matthew 19:1-12). Jesus modeled virtue in a world corrupted by excess and deficiency by being the transforming revelation of God.

As Aristotle gestures downwards at the School of Athens, so must we bring this discussion to our own contexts. For the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon, interfaith engagement is a demonstration of its testimony to Christ, and several peacebuilding initiatives of the Institute of Middle East Studies seek to facilitate kerygmatic interactions with Muslims. This admittedly draws the ire of some who interpret such an approach to Islam as backsliding on the essentials of biblical faith. Oftentimes, attempts to love our Muslim neighbors are judged for what they appear to be rather than what they necessarily are.

I appreciate the rule of the golden mean and the SEKAP spectrum because they are useful in helping us understand that acting virtuously is less about hitting stationary bullseyes and more about moving from glory to glory within ever-shifting contextual landscapes. Aristotle alludes to this process of ethical calibration when he says, “we must incline sometimes toward the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency, for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.” [iii] Jesus’ tip for hitting the mark is more straightforward, “Abide in me.”

No one has mastered Christian engagement with Islam; we must constantly work towards betterment. When we encounter different approaches, let’s not quickly dismiss what we think we see while entrenching ourselves in a preferred position. Instead, let’s humbly pursue our own journey towards virtue as we dialogue with others in a mutual desire to magnify the golden Christ.

[1] For example, generosity is a mean between stinginess and extravagance, ambition is a mean between slothfulness and greed, and temperance is a mean between insensibility and self-indulgence.

[2] Note that here receptivity does not refer to the personal embrace of Islamic teaching but rather listening to and regarding the claims of Islam.

[3] It’s important here to note that Accad’s SEKAP spectrum features two additional points of interfaith interaction. The Existential approach sits between the syncretic and kerygmatic, and the Apologetic is between kerygmatic and polemical. Together these points constitute the scope of the spectrum and make up the acronym: SEKAP. Accad recognizes each point on the spectrum possesses degrees of legitimacy- the term vice is something I inject into the discussion, not Accad- but the kerygmatic approach is presented as an optimal way. For the sake of dialoguing with Aristotle’s rule of the golden mean, I do not discuss the existential or apologetic approaches in this post, but they do fit into a larger discussion of Christian receptivity to Islam.

[i] “Christian Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach”, in Evelyne Reisacher (ed.), Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry (William Carey Library, Pasadena: 2012) 33-34. The SEKAP Spectrum is also discussed in Accad’s latest book, Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching across the Christian Muslim Divide.

[ii] Accad, “Christian Attitudes Towards Islam and Muslims”

[iii]Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W.D. Ross. Batoche Books, 1999. 32.

1 Comment

  1. Jonathan Andrews says:

    Many thanks for this which I found a fascinating and insightful contribution. Particularly helpful is the observation of how those in Aristole’s golden mean are viewed by those closer to the ends of the spectrum.

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